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Custom The Causes of the 1789 Haitian Revolution essay paper sample

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The Haitian Revolution of 1789 created a freedom that was riddled with the abandonment of the new country by other nations and the extortion of the Haitian Government for reparations of war costs.  This contributed to Haiti’s development from one of the wealthiest French colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to one of the world’s poorest nations in under a century.  The mistreatment of the slaves during the colonial period led to the Haitian Revolution in 1789, and the success of this revolution led to the boycott, in 1804, of the many nations that still held slave interests.  These countries relied on slave labor and had fears that the Haitian traders would “infect” the slaves with ideas of freedom.  The continuance of a slave-like labor system, sustained by the elites of Haitian society, contributed to the economic downturn of Haiti in addition to the international boycott.  Along with these problems, France would not recognize Haiti as a country until the country stated they were responsible for reimbursement to France of war costs, property damages, and loss of property associated with the revolution which only compounded the economic troubles of the struggling nation.

A large power vacuum was created when the French abandoned Haiti, creating a scramble for control of the new nation.  The elite, with their closely guarded wealth, were able to take advantage and corrupt the newly formed Haitian government, thus contributing to the breakdown of the administration.  The affluent were able to keep the poor in their station by paying incredibly low wages to the people working on the successful Haitian’s plantations and farms.  The rich further used their money, and illegally obtained power, to quash many of the uprisings of the masses that had tried to assert themselves after the Haitian Revolution, which further compounded the economic problem in Haiti. 

The 1789 Haitian Revolution was a culmination of conflicts and abuses between the strata of society.  The main classes in this Haitian society were the white landowners at the top, slaves and freed black men at the bottom, and mulâtres, or mulattoes, in the middle of the two.  The white landowners of the small colony in the Caribbean had the reputation of gross mistreatment of the slaves on their plantations, including severe punishments that sometimes resulted in the death of the slave; the slave owners were also known to have slaves die from exhaustion, being overworked, or accidents while the slaves processed sugarcane or other labor intensive crops.  These accusations were in violations of the code noir, which gave the slaves basic human rights that included how far the slave owner could punish the slave for doing misdeeds against the owner but could not exceed to the point of torture, maiming, or where the slave may have died.  This edict was not enforced as one slave recounts:

they…hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars...they…forced them to eat shit…after having flayed them with the lash…they cast them alive to be devoured by worms, or onto anthills, or lashed them to stakes in swamp to be devoured by mosquitoes...they…[threw] them into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup...they…put men and women inside barrels studded with spikes and rolled them down mountainsides into the abyss…they…consigned…[the slaves] to man-eating dogs until the latter, sated by human flesh, left the mangled victims to be finished off with bayonet and poniard…

The slave owners took full advantage of the leniency of the king’s edict by implementing sadistic forms of punishments for the slaves, even if there had been no wrong committed by the slave.  Whipping was a common and widely accepted form of punishment for most slaves in many colonies, besides Haiti, and in the mother countries, but was taken to the cruel extreme in the French colony.  The slave owners in Haiti would come up with cruel additions to the whippings of the slaves, including a favorite of rubbing salt, or other equally painful substances, in the open wounds after a beating for enjoyment, as was the common case, or to make an example of the offending slave for the rest of the plantation. It was also common on the Haitian plantations to have a slave carry out the brutalities against a fellow slave. For instance, when a master’s wife in the Haitian colony caught what she thought were longing glances between her husband and a slave woman, then she immediately condemned the slave woman to death by having another slave, owned by the family, to carry out the execution, immediately by beheading of the female slave.

Slaves were often used for extravagant, if sometimes strange and humiliating, indulgences of the grands blancs as well as being brutally abused by their owners.  Female slaves were often used by the women of the plantation to tickle their feet, as the white women were laid out upon a flat surface, and were a source of great amusement to the white women. The grands blancs also regularly used their slaves for large, excessive dinners and to have one slave be the personal attendant to a single person during the dinner; the dinner could include well over a hundred people in attendance.  Even if the slaves could get a tribunal or some other authority to listen to their pleas of misconduct by their owners, it was unlikely that anything would be done.  In one instance, there was a complaint of two slave women being brutally punished for a suspected misdeed while other slaves had gone to an authority to report this.  The investigation that ensued found grounds for the accusations of the owner.  There could be no punishment administered on the owner though, because of an angry mob of whites that stormed the prosecutions offices with petitions to free the plantation owner. This eventually led to the banishment of one of the prosecution officers that tried to help the slaves being mistreated.

There were also many relationships recorded of the white landowners having relationships with slave women.  Often, from this relationship, there were children conceived from this.  The mulâtres or mulattoes, name given to the mixed race children that were produced, were not given the same rights as whites even if they were eventually freed.  The codes noir also stated that the mulatto children were to be born into slavery if the mother was a slave and, if the mother was free so were the children.  Even if the children were considered free, they were still treated as if they were former slaves, although some may have never experienced slavery first hand; the mulattoes had to follow all the rules issued for the slaves or those rules issued for freed slaves, they were never considered equal in the eyes of whites.  Mulattoes were sometimes classified as below a slave in the colony by whites, even if they were freed. 

Slaves in the colony were constantly under extreme stress and threat of abuse by the plantation owners with little way of defending themselves without further abuse being added.  The slaves were to be protected to an extent, by the codes but these codes were never enforced by those in upper society.  The slaves never knew when they were to be sadistically punished or for what reason.  The grands blancs were the ones in control before the revolution and left all others of the social strata with little to no rights and no opportunity to improve the situation.  The rumor of the French Revolution spread throughout the slave population and the rest of the colony like wildfire that fueled the courage of the slave population to rise against the plantation owners and assert the freedom from the sadistic and brutal punishments.  After long and bloody confrontations with the French armies on the island the slaves, mulattoes, and whites that helped with the revolution finally took control and planned for great success of the new nation; unfortunately these plans would be compromised by greed and fear.

Mulatto-led revolts

It is against the backdrop of suchlike mistreatments which were being meted out against the Mulattoes that the Mulattoes also organized and staged continued spates of revolutions against the slave owners. This started off in the 1790s under the tutelage of their leader, Vincent Oge. In this first instance, the Mulattoes were trying to establish the right of universal suffrage from the then just concluded National Assembly ruling. The significance of these Mulatto-led uprisings is that they set the stage for clamoring for social justice and the abolition of slavery, given that they were the very first open challenges against the slaveholding system and the French efforts and rule. The veracity between this standpoint is seen in the fact that right after this development; the first black rebellion ensued, thereby igniting the San Domingo Revolution which lasted for 12 years.

At the same time, the rebellion which was staged by the Mulattoes is seen as having played a critical role in changing the attitude that the black masses had towards the French slave owners and colonialists. This is because the revolution painted the French men as mere mortals who could also succumb. Particularly, after the northern settlements were hit, torrential floods hit the French settlements, thereby overwhelming the Frenchmen. Given that the revolutions being staged by the Mulattoes were also heavily supported by the black population, the military strength and organizational strategizing of the black masses became a factor to be reckoned with.  Thus, the black masses gained more confidence which would prove to be of critical importance when staging subsequent revolutions.

At the same time, the revolution which was carried out by the Mulattoes was important in that it placed the strength of the French colonialists and slave owners at a lower level. As a mater of fact, this happened as plantation farms were destroyed while scores of white owners got killed in the attempt to escape the revolution, at the hands of the Mulattoes. In almost the same vein, the revolution by the Mulattoes was to serve as a tutor and harbinger of other black revolutionary forces such as Jeannot, Toussaint, Boukman, Francois, Biassou, Dessalines and Cristophe.

That the revolutionary efforts made by the Mulattoes were sacrosanct, is underscored by the fact that it is these men who would help in guiding the Revolution down the bloody and torturous road to a conclusive success, despite the fact that the struggle cost thousands of lives and patient long enough to claim 12 years. At the same time, even though these leaders fell by the wayside it remained true that the force and cause of unity against slavery, its inhumanity, slave labor and slaveholding became deeply embedded in the Creole culture.   This development bound the blacks and the Mulattoes together, and thereby leading to the realization of a sustainable front against slavery and French colonialism. It is against this backdrop that purely black revolutionaries such as Toussaint L’Ouverture emerged.

Toussaint L’Ouverture as the “Black Napoleon”

It is also true that in the wake of the protracted spates of revolutionary efforts which took place in Haiti, prominent figures which are considered as revolutionaries. In the wake of the revolutionary spirit, there are several black people who took to educating themselves. Indeed, mainstream history considers Napoleon Bonaparte as one of the greatest generals who ever lived. Nevertheless, in an interesting twist, as the 18th century came to a close, a self educated slave bereft of any military training drove Napoleon out and away from Haiti, thereby leading Haiti into independence. Known as Toussaint Breda, this slave warrior came to be known as Toussaint L’Ouverture or the black Napoleon

The emergence of Toussaint L’Ouverture would begin in 1791 in Saint Dominique, a French colony which would later be known as Haiti. Having been born into a slave family in Saint Dominique, Toussaint would learn from his father, concerning Africa as a continent and his motherland. Although his father had been born free at the time, Toussaint yet came to accept the fact that he was a man because of his brains and dignity and as such, he considered himself much more of worth than merely a slave. Having landed in the hands of a more liberal master who trained him as a house servant and also tolerated him to read and write, Toussaint widely read books on the French Enlightenment and philosophers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau who were very vocal on the rights and freedoms of the individual at the time.

Back in France, the inequality which existed between the bourgeoisie (the monarchy of King Lois XVI and the Church) precipitated the Revolution in France in 1789. This would have great and far reaching impacts in the sugar plantations in Saint Dominique. Seeing the manner in which the French society fought valiantly for their economic emancipation, plantation farmers in Saint Dominique were fought valiantly and in unrelentingly equal measure as their capitalist counterparts in France.

Contrary to the opinion of many, affairs and the revolutionary spirit in Saint Dominique also affected and spurred onwards, the revolutionary spirit in France. Particularly, this can be seen to have been exemplified when the Jacobins, the most radical and unrelenting revolutionary faction, took over the revolutionary movement in 1793 under the leadership of Maximilian Robespierre.  In the quest to rid the French society of elements inimical to the revolution, the Jacobins are known to have instituted the Reign of Terror, given that the Jacobins considered equality in a serious and literal sense. So serious were the Jacobins on the matter on human rights, freedoms and equality that they voted and fought to end slavery in all French colonies, including Saint Dominique. After the Jacobins lost power, Napoleon took over and restored the interests of plantation owners by reinstating slavery and slaveholdings in the French colonies.  This brought Saint Dominique to war.

That Toussaint played a pivotal role in the realization and the securing of the Saint Dominique is a matter which is beyond any possible repudiation.  In 1803, Napoleon agreed on terms of peace with Toussaint over Saint Dominique, with the conditions being that: while Napoleon was to recognize the independence of Saint Dominique, Toussaint was to retire from public life. The aftermath of this development was the invitation of Toussaint to a negotiation table in France. In a sudden turn of events, Napoleon would order the incarceration and the subsequent execution of Toussaint by the means of starvation, cold and neglect. Nevertheless, buoyed by the courageous spirit which Toussaint had; his lieutenants valiantly and incessantly carried on with the fight. The culmination of this above development was the abandoning of Saint Dominique to independence and the selling of all the French territory such as Louisiana in North America to the US by Napoleon. Thus, the present day Haiti gained its independence.

It is important to note that the occupation of the French colonialists, French slave masters and owners of plantation farming aggravated the economic distress which was already in Saint Dominique.  A look at the history of formal education in Haiti reveals discriminative tendencies which had been set in place so as to shortchange the Haitians.   As a matter of fact, formal education was selectively limited to the white Frenchmen only. It was totally illegal for the Haitians to access formal education.

On the converse, Haitians were slaves whose primary occupation remained totally limited to farming and laboring. It was surmised by the colonial lords that the exposure of the black Haitians to formal education would lead to the enlightenment of the black Haitians. The enlightenment of the black Haitians was feared by the Frenchmen since it would inevitably pave way for revolutionary movements and efforts in Haiti.  To this effect, even those Haitians who accessed education enjoyed this provision, but only in its threadbare form. This would later on lead to the denying Haiti of a skilled population which is in turn critical to the realization of economic, technological, political and/ or social development.

The spiraling downward trend in Haiti’s economy was the culmination of the continual locking out of Haitians from formal education. For instance, with the departure of the French colonialists, administrators, plantation farmers and slave masters after independence, Haiti’s economic slumped since it became impossible for the not adequately literate Haitians to administer plantation economy.  At the national scale, the appropriation of the resources and factors of production became a problem, due to the prior locking out of the black Haitians from proper formal education.

As universally exhibited, the social effects of colonialism, whether at the hands of Germans, the Frenchmen, Italians, the English, or any other people are always staggering. These social effects have been to be so profound to an extent of later on impeding the realization of national cohesion in the newly found independent state. The situation, if not highly detectable in Haiti, was totally unique in the independent Saint Dominique Republic.  At the heart of the matter, the French colonial legacy bequeathed Saint Dominique at least three races: the white, the black race and the Creole.

While the above social legacy may be rightly celebrated as having been important since it is needful for the realization of cultural variegation (Haiti as a melting pot), yet it is a fact that knitting the same races into one ideology becomes difficult, due to the historical backdrop of this development. At the heart of the matter, the French colonialists had been using the divide and rule tactic to secure its regime in Saint Dominique.

The white race was treated preferentially, so that it had all the incentives to trade, social amenities and state resources. Thus, the white race in the French colony of Haiti easily accessed the elite, or the aristocrat, on one hand. The Creoles, locally known as the Mulattoes on the other hand, were treated as better people than the black Haitians and thereby formed the middle class in the Saint Dominique society. The black Haitians finally formed the low class and therefore were regarded as subhuman, only meant for providing white capitalists and the large scale plantation famers with labor. Thus, in order to quell the dangers of a revolution, the administrators of the French colony always collaborated with the Creoles against the blacks, or vise versa, depending on the prevailing political situation in Saint Dominique. This nevertheless worked before the revolutionary spirit, movements or ideals became concrete in Haiti.

The gravity of the above development is that the blacks and the Creoles, right after accessing independence, always viewed each other with suspicion. The Creoles who had assumed powerful offices after the departure of the French were seen to have done so not by merit but by cronyism which existed between the Creoles and the Frenchmen, at one hand. At the other hand, the Blacks who ascended into power in the post-independent Haiti were seen to have also done so, with the perceived relatively illiterate or semi-illiterate profile being cited as proof.  

The situated was not ameliorated by the fact that even after the attaining of the Haitian independence, the running of the plantation farms was carried out through slave-like conditions. This riveted he divisive situation which existed in the newly post-independent Haiti. Given that after the departure of the French colonialists, the Creole had easier access to the plantation farms, the former black slaves in plantation farming continued to view the Creole as being too economically hegemonic. Intensifying the suspicion, questions were raised concerning the essence of the Haitian freedom and independence, if after the struggle and the subsequent attaining of independence, some Haitians who were reach capital owners were still treating their poor counterparts as chattels. The gravity of this development shook to the core, the ideals of independent Haiti.

At the same time, matters were not made any better by the fact that social and economic inequality in the post-independent Haiti existed along racial lines. The white French natives who remained in Haiti after the revolution still owned vast amounts of wealth and formed the bulk of the aristocrats, while the Creoles were seen to generally fall within the middle class level. The black population which had been mainly serving as the slave in plantation farming (latifunda) continued to wallow in the thickest morass of misery and poverty. This situation continued to seemingly confirm the suspicion that after the clamoring for, and the subsequent attaining of independence, there are those who had been shortlisted in the apportioning of the national cake. It is obvious that a state in which the populace is divided amongst itself is one which is likely to remain bereft of important values such as patriotism and nationalism, diligence and unity of purpose among the citizen. Any nation that is derelict of these values is on a primrose path.

The extent of this internal division must be understood in the light of the post-independent economy. This is because; the culmination of this aforementioned development was former slaves refusing to work for those who bought the plantation farms. This affected the labor system in Haiti and forced the new owners of plantation farms to procure the services of farmhands, so as to sustain economic operations in the latifunda. The need to employ farmhands at a fee due to the annulling of the chattel system of slavery made the owners of the latifunda to incur high (employee) turnover.

At certain times, the shortage of labor and the high turnover brought about an inevitable need to break down (by selling away), the large scale commercial farms (latifunda) into smaller manageable units which became known as minifunda. While this development may be seen as a positive move which enabled the former slaves to also make inroads into plantation farming and thereby bringing about a sense of competitiveness and egalitarianism, the same cannot be reveled in, as it affected the Haitian economy, negatively. With the breaking of latifunda into minifunda, the economies of scale also waned. As the farmer’s economies of scale and the rate of profit making waned, the Haitian government became robbed of an important source of revenue, since the rate of taxation had to also be lowered, to ensure rates which are commensurate with the gains of farming. The fact that the new entrants into the plantation farming industry were not totally astute in formal or skilled knowledge on management did not make the liberalization of the latifunda a much profitable venture.

The international consensus of refusal to accept the new island nation as a legitimate country effectively killed the trade of Haiti with the international boycott of other nations that soon followed the end of the 1789 Haitian Revolution; the fear of a slave uprising in the international community was a basis for this abandonment of the new nation.  France further compounded the economic troubles of Haiti by forcing the Haitian government to take all the blame and pay highly inflated reparations of war costs to France as a bargain to be recognized by France as a nation; the government was sure this would boost the economy of the new nation by opening trading routes again.  Eventually there was not much in the way to trade from the new nation as the farm system suffered and deteriorated from a profitable endeavor to a bare subsistence because of the lack of knowledge of the former slaves of how to run a successful plantation style business and refusal, for many years after, to work for other people. 

The lack of education in the island was a continuation of the system that was in place long before the Revolution of 1789.  The depths of ignorance deepened to an abysmal level after the Revolution which created an intensified situation of poverty for the Haitian population; without an education of any sort the Haitian populace had little chance of climbing out of the desperate poverty that many were born into.  The people of Haiti were further oppressed by the remaining elites. These members of the elite society used their wealth to stifle people who were trying to assert their rights from the oppression of poverty and unequal treatment.

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